This Book Will End When I Say It Will End

I’m reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace and I’m on page 311 of just under 1100 pages. Before I pick up the book to continue reading I need a moment to regroup.

Infinite Jest is a long and complex novel that I have chosen to read for a number of reasons. I expected the footnotes (over 300) and bouts of disjointed information and I’m still working through the book. If you’re reading between the lines here, you can see that maybe at page 311, I’m having doubts about continuing to read. There’s some truth to that, but, in this case, I’m pushing forward.

But do I have to? Do I have to finish every book I start? If I start a book and don’t finish, are the characters just milling around in literary space for all eternity waiting for their plot to come to a close?

I used to be a “must finish” reader, meaning if I started a book, I read it to the end. Then I decided if I’d read 25% I must finish. Then that number moved to 50%. It didn’t matter what the book was, how it was going, or what was next in my queue, I finished books based on the math. Now, I decide to finish or not on a case-by-case basis. Percentages mean nothing (and, as always for me, words trump math!).

The number of books I’ve read that got better as I forced myself to keep reading is one: David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumn of Jacob de Zoet. I would have tossed that book 50 or so pages in, but I was reading it for book club so there was social pressure to finish. The book got markedly better after about 100 pages, but that only made me bitter that I had to slog through while Mitchell got his act together.

The earliest I’ve ever put down a book, and I’m not necessarily proud of this record, is after reading just one word. Let me explain. I picked up a non-fiction book about the history of the world. It was a big book, over 1,000 pages purporting to be a compendium of world history covering the great civilizations. The first word in the book was “I.” Really? That’s how the history of the world starts? I shut the book and moved on.

I feel pretty safe in tossing books to the side, sometimes after just a few pages. I will try to keep reading if the book just starts out confusing, hoping the confusion is intentional and the author is going to bring it home. (Sci-fi books and some murder mysteries start by putting the reader off-balance, for example). But, if I think the author is just being cute with the set-up, I’ll stop. And I stop fairly quickly if I realize I don’t think I care what’s about to happen or I don’t think the author has the tools I’m looking for. All of these judgements come from years of reading. Perhaps they are similar to the skills I use when I’m making first impressions of a person, but put into literary terms.

I try not to be so harsh when I decide if I’m going to keep reading what is already in my hand, but there are plenty of books to read and I think it’s okay to move on. You know how experts say to get rid of the negative people in your life? I apply that to books.

In fact, I’m starting to see book reading as a large cocktail party. If books are people invited to the party, there are some you want to pass by as quickly as possible and many you want to linger with because they’re your friends. You’ll deal with the blowhards, the truly insightful, the guy who can’t make a coherent thought, and the woman who speaks so beautifully you want to linger forever.

Now, it’s time to go back to reading Infinite Jest, starting with the 18-page footnote where I left off.


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